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A bridge project across Lake Oahe on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation is being researched by the Sioux tribe to link Sioux County and Emmons County.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is seeking a $6.7 million grant to delve into the possibility of building a bridge across Lake Oahe on the Missouri River — an idea pushed forward as early as the 1970s but floundered largely due to concerns over cultural impacts.

The tribe has applied for the grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, called the Better Utilizing Investment to Leverage Development grant, which is for projects with a significant local or regional impact.

With the grant funding, the tribe aims to commission an environmental impact statement on a proposed crossing near Fort Yates. The EIS process is expected to take about six years, and, afterward, it would position the project for full design and construction.

Broken transit

When Lake Oahe was created in 1958, it severed transportation connections between the west side of the Missouri River, Sioux County, which comprises the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, and Emmons County to the east.

On the east side of the river, the nearest crossings are at Bismarck and Mobridge, S.D., more than 100 miles apart. On the west side, it's a 115-mile stretch from Bismarck to Mobridge, S.D. The only other way to cross the river for more than 100 miles is via a pontoon privately operated by Prairie Knights Casino.

Ron His Horse Is Thunder, a former tribal chairman and the tribe's current director of transportation planning and development, said a bridge has long been needed.

The federal government authorized the bridge when Lake Oahe was created, but tribal members objected to previous bridge proposals due to concerns over the disruptions to burial sites and other cultural issues, according to His Horse Is Thunder, 

Today, technology exists for a more complete search of these sites, which His Horse Is Thunder said has eased the tribe's concerns.

"The tribe is a little bit more receptive to the idea that, OK, if we do this bridge, we'll use this new technology and these cultural sites will be found and they will be protected," he said.

A bridge would not only support the agriculture and ranching economy of the Standing Rock Reservation, but communities surrounding the reservation and across the river, according to His Horse Is Thunder. A bridge would open the ability to ship goods to market, rather than being limited to crossings at Bismarck or Mobridge, S.D., he said.

"It's not just about the reservation economy, it's about the whole area's economy and how it ties to the national economy. It would be great for ag producers in terms of opening up their markets," said His Horse Is Thunder, adding another benefit would be for emergency management services and fire departments.

The Morton County Commission and the Sioux County Commission have voiced support for the grant.

"(A bridge would be) a great benefit to anybody. As everybody knows, the Missouri River is a formidable object in terms of being able to get across it," said Morton County Commission Chairman Bruce Strinden.

"It really just makes sense. I think the bottom line is, when you start building bridges across a river the size of the Missouri, your cost is really substantial. And that's probably going to be the biggest obstacle," he said.

Ken Schmidt, of Solen, farms land near Selfridge in Sioux County. He grows sunflowers and takes 100 to 200 loads to Enderlin and Wahpeton each year. Round trip, it's a 12-hour drive, he said. A bridge would take off about two hours.

"(The bridge is) news to me, but it would sure be beneficial," Schmidt said.

David Kalberer, a member of the Emmons County Commission, said the commission has not yet discussed the grant. Rep. Mike Bradenburg, R-Edgeley, said he is supportive of efforts to study the construction of a bridge.

"I just had some discussions, and I'm open to it," said Bradenburg, who represents Emmons County. "I guess we'll have to see what the people in Emmons County want to do."

For years people have worked on both sides of the river to get a bridge built, said Bradenburg, who also served as a legislator in the late 1990s.

"I would say it's got a 50-year history of trying to do something. There still are a lot of people who would like to see a bridge, and then there are some that don't," he said.

His Horse Is Thunder said the tribe won't know if it got the grant until November. If it's approved, funding for the actual construction of a bridge would involve a number of players, including Congress and state government. If a bridge is built, it would be entered into the state system and maintained with the other state DOT bridges.

In July, Sens. Heidi Heitkamp and John Hoeven sent letters of support for the project to Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, as did Rep. Kevin Cramer. Tom Sorel, director of the North Dakota Department of Transportation, also sent a letter of support.

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Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com.

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